SECAUCUS, N.J. — It was nearly a year ago, when John Wall was seated on a couch in the Los Angeles home of his agent, Dan Fegan, pondering his future and anxiously awaiting the results of the NBA draft lottery. When the Washington Wizards won the No. 1 pick, Wall was surprised, but not nearly as shocked as former majority owner Irene Pollin, whose wide-open mouth and widened eyes encapsulated the stunning development for a franchise that rarely experiences much luck.
A month after completing his rookie season, Wall was sent to NBA Entertainment studios here to represent the team as the undisputed face of the franchise. He wanted to borrow Pollin’s yellow blazer, or possibly bring some pearls, but when those efforts failed, Wall brought the only good luck charm he could find: His mother, Frances Pulley.
Pulley was in the audience on Tuesday to see Wall’s stone-faced reaction after watching NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver lift a placard revealing that the Wizards would get the sixth pick in the June 23 draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the top choice for the second time in franchise history, less than 11 months after their previous No. 1 overall pick, LeBron James, decided to take his talents to the Miami Heat in free agency. Minnesota finished second and Utah won third.
“I’m still happy. I wish we would’ve got higher, but I still think we can get somebody who can help our team out in that position,” Wall said. “We always want to get closer. I hope we can find somebody that we like.”
Wall had hoped to help the Wizards become the first team since Orlando in 1992 and 1993 to win the lottery in consecutive seasons, but with the fourth-best odds of winning (11.9 percent), they fell back for the 11th time in 15 trips to the lottery.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld returned, equipped with his good luck charm from last season — a miniature gold ball attached to a chain that was a gift that his father gave him when he was six. But the experience of watching the number combinations for the top pick in the back room didn’t have the same feeling as a year ago.
“Last year, the time went by real quick. This year, it took a little bit longer in that room,” Grunfeld said with a laugh. “That’s the way the situation goes, but we’re prepared for any situation and I think we’ll get a solid player that will be a part of our core for now or down the road. We’re going to do the best that we can and get a solid player.”
The Cavaliers won with the unprotected first-round pick that they acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in a cost-cutting trade that involved point guard Baron Davis. They managed to overcome 2.8 percent odds to claim the top choice, moving up from the eighth spot. In 14 previous trips to the lottery, the Wizards had only moved up twice — to win Wall and Kwame Brown in 2001.
The Wizards have had the sixth pick twice before in the lottery era, selecting Tom Gugliotta in 1992 and Calbert Cheaney in 1993. They will also have the 18th overall selection, acquired from Atlanta in the Kirk Hinrich deal, and the 34th pick. Grunfeld said that the Wizards would have to be patient when introducing more rookies into the mix. Even the addition of Wall only resulted in the Wizards finishing with the fourth-worst record at 23-59.
“That’s how the draft works. If you have a top pick, you’re going to have a younger team, a team that’s going to have to develop,” Grunfeld said. “I know my playing days, my last days in the league, we got Patrick Ewing, who was a consensus first pick, big man, played in college for four years and in his first two years in the league, the team won 24 and 25 games, so there is no guarantee. This is a team game. We want to continue to add pieces, we want to continue to add talent. Continue to get better, but very few players can come in and make an immediate impact and turn a whole franchise around.”
Wall arrived at the studios and spotted Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, a player projected by many to be the No. 1 overall pick. Wall shook hands with Irving and the two later sat down to talk, with Wall passing along some advice and confidently predicting that the sophomores would win the Rookie Challenge during the 2012 all-star festivities in Orlando. That event could be in peril, with a lockout expected to come with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire on July 1.
As Wall and Irving were chatting, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Silver were discussing the tenuous labor negotiations in an adjacent room. The Wizards aren’t certain about the rules that will be set this summer, but Grunfeld felt that the team is positioned well to handle any circumstance that comes their way.
“We have a game plan. Our game plan all along was to build through the draft, continue to develop our young players and create financial flexibility. I think we have all those things in place,” Grunfeld said. “Our young veteran players like JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche and Nick Young had career years and they’ve developed. Now we have to continue to develop these young players, let them come together and see whatever opportunities will present itself in the offseason, whether it’s signing a free agent, whether it’s using our cap room to get somebody else’s player, like we did last year with Kirk Hinrich. I think player development is going to continue to be important for us.”
When asked what the Wizards should look for in the draft, Wall said: “Just get somebody that’s going to really help us. There’s a lot of great players in this draft, even though people say it’s not as great as the other drafts.”